Nightmare at 20,000 Feet
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"Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" is episode 123 of the American television anthology series The Twilight Zone, based on the short story of the same name by Richard Matheson, first published in Alone by Night (1961). It originally aired on October 11, 1963 and is one of the most well-known and frequently referenced episodes of the series. The story follows the only passenger on an airline flight to notice a hideous creature lurking outside the plane.
|"Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"|
|The Twilight Zone episode|
|Episode no.||Season 5|
|Directed by||Richard Donner|
|Written by||Richard Matheson|
|Based on||"Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"|
by Richard Matheson
|Featured music||Stock from "King Nine Will Not Return" and "The Rip Van Winkle Caper"|
|Original air date||October 11, 1963|
|Running time||25 minutes (without commercials)|
In 2019, Keith Phipps of Vulture stated that the episode "doubles as such an effective shorthand for a fear of flying", making it endure in popular culture. This is the first of six episodes to be directed by Richard Donner.
Portrait of a frightened man: Mr. Robert Wilson, thirty-seven, husband, father, and salesman on sick leave. Mr. Wilson has just been discharged from a sanitarium where he spent the last six months recovering from a nervous breakdown, the onset of which took place on an evening not dissimilar to this one, on an airliner very much like the one in which Mr. Wilson is about to be flown home—the difference being that, on that evening half a year ago, Mr. Wilson's flight was terminated by the onslaught of his mental breakdown. Tonight, he's traveling all the way to his appointed destination, which, contrary to Mr. Wilson's plan, happens to be in the darkest corner of the Twilight Zone.
While traveling by airplane, Robert Wilson sees a gremlin on the wing. He tries to alert his wife and the flight crew, but every time someone else looks out of the window, the gremlin hides itself near the engine, so Robert's claim seems crazy. Robert admits the oddness of the gremlin avoiding everyone else's sight but not his. His credibility is further undermined by this being his first flight since suffering a nervous breakdown six months earlier, which also occurred on an aircraft. Robert realizes that his wife is starting to think he needs to go back to the sanitarium, but his more immediate concern is the gremlin tinkering with the wiring under one of the engine cowlings, which could cause the aircraft to crash.
In response to his repeated attempts to raise an alarm about the gremlin, the crew gives Robert a sedative to stop him from alarming other passengers. Robert pretends to down it with water, but does not swallow and secretly spits it out. He then steals a sleeping police officer's revolver, straps himself in to avoid being blown out of the aircraft, and opens the emergency exit door to shoot the gremlin.
Once the airplane has landed, everyone believes that Robert has gone insane. In a straitjacket as he is whisked away on a gurney, Robert tells his wife that he is alone in his knowledge of what really happened during the flight. However, the final scene reveals conspicuous damage to the exterior of one of the aircraft's engines, confirming that Robert was right all along.
The flight of Mr. Robert Wilson has ended now, a flight not only from point A to point B, but also from the fear of recurring mental breakdown. Mr. Wilson has that fear no longer... though, for the moment, he is, as he has said, alone in this assurance. Happily, his conviction will not remain isolated too much longer, for happily, tangible manifestation is very often left as evidence of trespass, even from so intangible a quarter as the Twilight Zone.
Twilight Zone: The Movie versionEdit
The episode was remade in 1983 by director George Miller as a segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie. John Valentine, played by John Lithgow, suffers from severe fear of flying. The plane flies through a violent thunderstorm, and Valentine hides in the lavatory trying to recover from a panic attack, but the flight attendants coax him back to his seat. He notices a hideous gremlin on the wing of the plane and begins to spiral into another severe panic. He watches as the creature wreaks havoc on the wing, damaging the plane's engine. Valentine finally snaps and attempts to break the window with an oxygen canister, but is wrestled to the ground by another passenger (an off-duty security guard). Valentine takes the passenger's gun, shoots out the window (causing a breach in the pressurized cabin), and begins firing at the gremlin. This catches the attention of the gremlin, who rushes up to Valentine and destroys the gun, then leaps away into the sky. The police, crew, and passengers write off Valentine as insane. However, while a straitjacketed Valentine is carried off in an ambulance, the aircraft maintenance crew arrives and finds the damage to the plane's engines, complete with claw marks.
Adam Scott was cast in an episode for the 2019 reboot series, entitled "Nightmare at 30,000 Feet". Other cast mates include Chris Diamantopoulos, China Shavers, Katie Findlay and Nicholas Lea. The remake removes the gremlin completely, though it makes a cameo as a doll that washes up on the atoll near the end, and instead focuses on a sinister podcast hosted by the enigmatic Rodman Edwards (voiced by Dan Carlin).
Settling in for a 13-hour transatlantic flight to a land rife with ancient mysteries is Justin Sanderson. Mr. Sanderson's occupation is to uncover unbiased truth. But with an hour left before certain doom, he must ask the right questions of the right people. Landing at the truth this time will require an unscheduled stopover in The Twilight Zone.
Justin Sanderson is a magazine journalist suffering from PTSD, who is boarding Golden Airways Flight 1015 for a flight to Tel Aviv. While awaiting his flight, he befriends Joe Beaumont, a former pilot for the company and alcoholic who suffered some unspecified failure in the past. At his seat, Sanderson discovers an MP3 player that has a podcast playing called Enigmatique, which describes a "Flight 1015" which was lost without explanation. Sanderson begins to panic and tries to make sense of the situation, but is told to calm down. He listens further and hears speculation about passengers who might have been involved somehow in the plane's disappearance; his attempts to investigate only to annoy the other passengers and crew. He learns that the last words heard from the pilot were "Good night, New York", and desperately tries to warn the pilot not to say that, but is restrained by an air marshal. Beaumont approaches and confides that he believes him. Guessing that the flight number – and coincidental departure time – is the code to the cockpit, Sanderson gets Beaumont access, who overpowers the crew and takes control of the flight. As Beaumont subdues the passengers and crew with oxygen deprivation, he reveals his plan to crash the plane to atone for his past failures. As Beaumont signs off with "Good night, New York", it dawns on Sanderson that he indirectly causes the crash. He awakens on an island and learns from the MP3 player that all the passengers actually survived, except for Sanderson who disappeared. The other passengers reveal themselves as they attack and kill Sanderson, whom they blame for the crash.
In his final moments, Justin Sanderson made the case that he did everything he could to avert disaster. But in the end, he was an investigative reporter unwilling to investigate himself, until it was too late. Justin discovered that the flight path to hell is paved with good intentions, and it passes directly through The Twilight Zone.
Keith Phipps of Vulture rated the 2019 episode three of five stars, citing that the "concept’s solid", though he felt there was implausibility regarding the revelations about Joe and that the final reveal about the passengers killing Justin is "a twist too far in an otherwise solid outing."
In popular cultureEdit
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The episode is considered one of the most popular of the series and parts of the plot have been repeated and parodied several times in popular culture, including television shows, films, radio and music:
- On the October 20, 1984 episode of Saturday Night Live, in a skit with guest host Jesse Jackson, Ed Grimley sits next to Jackson on a plane, sees the gremlin, and disturbs Jackson, who eventually walks off the set.
- In The Simpsons episode "Treehouse of Horror IV" (1993) is a segment called "Terror at 5 1/2 Feet". It takes place on a school bus rather than an aircraft, and puts Bart Simpson in the role of Bob Wilson. An AMC Gremlin driven by Hans Moleman drives alongside the bus.
- The music video for the 1998 song "Inside Out" Anthrax closely resembles this episode, though with the passenger seeing Anthrax themselves playing music on the wing.
- In the 3rd Rock from the Sun episode "Dick's Big Giant Headache: Part 1" (1999), John Lithgow's character meets a character played by Shatner as he gets off an aircraft. When Shatner describes seeing something horrifying on the wing, Lithgow replies, "The same thing happened to me!" This references not only Lithgow's portrayal of the nervous passenger in the 1983 Twilight Zone remake, but also an earlier 3rd Rock episode "Frozen Dick" (Season 1, Ep 12, 1996) when he and Jane Curtin's characters were due to fly to Chicago to pick up awards before Dick panicked about something on the wing while the plane was still on the tarmac and gets them both kicked off the plane.
- On the March 16, 2010 episode of Saturday Night Live, guest host Jude Law plays Shatner's original role, while cast regular Bobby Moynihan is the gremlin on the wing of the jet. At one point, musical guest Pearl Jam are all on the wing as well, talking with the gremlin.
- In the July 7, 1996 episode "Whoopi Goldberg" of Muppets Tonight, Miss Piggy is bothered by a gremlin while riding in an airplane Miss Piggy goes to tell another passenger, who turns out to be William Shatner (playing himself). Shatner looks at the Gremlin and nonchalantly says, "Oh. Him again." He claims that he has been complaining about the gremlin for years, but nobody does anything about it.
- In the Robot Chicken episode "Tapping a Hero", the episode is parodied in a sketch.
- In Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, Jim Carrey parodies Shatner and his character in this film.
- In the Johnny Bravo episode "The Man Who Cried Clown", which is part of "The Zone Where Normal Things Don't Happen Very Often," Johnny sees an evil clown on the wing of the aircraft and is having difficulty convincing the pilots and anyone of its existence which even included a cameo by someone resembling William Shatner who quotes "Oh no you don't! I'm not falling for that again." When he catches and beats up the clown in the airplane's restroom, he is confronted and informed by the pilots that the clown in question and another clown were needed to keep the aircraft in balance during flight. The pilots and some nearby people beat up Johnny and make him take the incapacitated clown's place.
- In The Angry Beavers episode "Dag's List", Barry the bear is repeatedly launched into the air, landing on the wing of a plane owned by Dairy Airlines. Wally Wingert's secondary character, credited as "Passenger 57", exclaims in a halted, Shatner-style voice: "There's a bear... on... the wing!"
- In the movie Sharknado 2: The Second One, Fin Shepard checks the wing of the plane, and sees a shark on the wing of the plane. The flight attendant tells him to calm down.
- The 1995 Tiny Toon Adventures special Tiny Toons' Night Ghoulery features a segment named "Gremlin on a Wing", which parodies "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet", with Plucky Duck in William Shatner's place, accompanied by Hamton J. Pig in an aircraft, and a gremlin similar to that which appeared in the Bugs Bunny short Falling Hare.
- The Lego Batman Movie features gremlins from the film Gremlins attacking a plane.
- In the Futurama episode "I Dated a Robot", the main characters watch a TV show entitled The Scary Door, which features a gremlin damaging a plane along with parodies of other story-lines from The Twilight Zone. In the season 9 episode, “Zapp Dingbat,” Zapp Brannigan says to Kif Kroker, “Kif, I’m bored. What say you go out on the wing and pretend you’re a gremlin.”
- In the beginning of the film Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, Alex the lion gets scared by a gremlin on the plane wing, who turns out to be Mort (a mouse lemur), who is soon swept away by the wind.
- In the 2015 sketch "Airplane Continental" of sketch comedy show Key & Peele, Peele's character encounters a gremlin while looking out the airplane window. Interestingly, Peele would later produce a non-parodic remake of this story for the 2019 Twilight Zone series, although omitting the gremlin (see above).
- In the 2011 Dragon Ball Z Kai episode "The Hunt for Cell Is On! Goku, Back in Action!", Cell has knocked Krillin's head through the wall of an airplane and is about to absorb him. Piccolo and Tien arrive just in time to stop Cell, but before he goes, standing on the wing of the plane, Cell wags his finger at them and leaps off of the plane like the gremlin in the movie remake.
- In the Netflix series Astronomy Club: The Sketch Show, the episode “Ice Cube Day” has a sketch parodying the episode directly. Instead of a gremlin, the passenger sees a woman “twerking” on the wing of the plane.
- UK band Pop Will Eat Itself's 1990 album Cure for Sanity include the song "Nightmare at 20,000 feet". The track is said to be inspired by singer Clint Mansell's fear of flying.
- The episode inspired the opening sequence of the 2000 slasher movie Urban Legends: Final Cut, directed by John Ottman.
- In the 2014 horror film Flight 7500, a character watches the episode as part of the in-flight services, paralleling their own dire situation.
- A 1973 made-for-television horror film, unrelated to this episode of The Twilight Zone, similarly titled The Horror at 37,000 Feet also co-stars William Shatner.
- Phipps, Keith (April 1, 2019). "How a Classic Twilight Zone Episode Became a Recurring 'Nightmare'". Vulture. Retrieved April 10, 2020.
- Canby, Vincent (June 24, 1983). "'Twilight Zone' is Adapted to the Big Screen". The New York Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved May 10, 2015.
- Larnick, Eric (September 26, 2012). "Joe Dante, 'The Hole' Director On New Horror, '80s Favorites And More 'Gremlins'". Moviefone. Archived from the original on October 17, 2012.
- Haring, Bruce (October 26, 2018). "'The Twilight Zone' Adds Adam Scott For 'Nightmare At 30,000 Feet' Episode". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved October 26, 2018.
- Phipps, Keith (April 1, 2019). "The Twilight Zone Recap: In-Flight Entertainment". Vulture. Retrieved April 10, 2020.
- McDuffee, Keith. "All-time scariest TV characters." TV Squad, October 24, 2008. Retrieved: March 13, 2012. Archived October 12, 2013, at the Wayback Machine
- Groening et al. 1997, pp. 124–125.
- "William Shatner Trivia." Sci-Fi Updates, August 8, 2013. Retrieved: October 13, 2014. Archived September 17, 2013, at the Wayback Machine
- Nightmare at 20,000 Feet at TV.com Retrieved November 4, 2015.[dead link]
- Holmes, Chris. "SNL Funny: 'Nightmare at 20,000 feet'." grayflannelsuit.net, March 16, 2010. Retrieved: October 13, 2014.
- Comedy Central (September 13, 2015). "Key & Peele - Airplane Continental" – via YouTube.
- Ottman, John. Urban Legends: Final Cut (2001). Audio commentary (DVD). Columbia Pictures Home Entertainment. (0:02:08).
- DeVoe, Bill. Trivia from The Twilight Zone. Albany, Georgia: Bear Manor Media, 2008. ISBN 978-1-59393-136-0.
- Grams, Martin. The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic. Churchville, Maryland: OTR Publishing, 2008. ISBN 978-0-9703310-9-0.
- Groening, Matt, Ray Richmond and Antonia Coffman, eds. The Simpsons: A Complete Guide to Our Favorite Family. New York: HarperPerennial, 1997. ISBN 978-0-06-095252-5.
- Zicree, Marc Scott. The Twilight Zone Companion. Los Angeles: Sillman-James Press, 1982 (second edition). ISBN 978-1-87950-509-4.